How Hardscaping Works

The patio, walls, steps, pots and rocks work together here to form a beautiful hardscape juxtaposed to the flowers, trees and grass of the softscape.
©iStockphoto/Brigitte Smith


­If you ever watch any of the myriad of house-flipping shows on TV, you probably recognize the importance of landscaping in curb appeal -- or how attractive a house looks to a passer-by on the street. You can spend a fortune designing the interior of a home, but if the lawn is in shambles or just plain boring, you won't draw in a lot of interested buyers. Even if you aren't selling your house, you'd be amazed at how you can fall in love with it all over again by redesigning the lawn. The home suddenly becomes warmer and more inviting. However, don't make the mistake of thinking you can plant a few flowers and be done with it.


Although vegetation is certainly important, it's just one element of landscaping. The other is known as hardscaping, also called hard landscaping. As opposed to the plant life in a yard, which is called softscaping, hardscaping has to do with all the nonplant design elements of a yard. In other words, all the paved walkways, walls, patios, fences, lawn ornaments and rocks constitute your lawn's hardscape. Hardscaping represents the foundation and anchor of landscaping plans. You should plan your hardscaping carefully and implement it before starting to softscape.

Hardscaping incorporates several design elements to enhance the appearance of your yard. It provides a fluid continuity from your home's interior to the yard and from your yard to the surrounding landscape. The solidity and permanence of hardscape also offers an aesthetic contrast to the vulnerable and transient vegetation.

We sh­ould note that under its strictest definition, hardscaping encompasses all deliberately positioned inanimate outdoor surfaces. This includes public sidewalks, streets and even parking lots. Nevertheless, designers typically use the term to refer to home landscaping, and that is what this article mainly focuses on. General principles and materials, however, apply to all types of hardscape.

Like urban hardscaping, lawn hardscaping isn't just about aesthetics. Hardscaping serves some very useful and practical functions. We'll start by looking at some of these before we go into the details of artistic design.­


Practical Functions of Hardscaping

retaining walls
A series of retaining walls correct a large, awkward slope that would otherwise be hard to use or cultivate.

Most agree that good hardscaping does wonders for beautifying an outdoor space. But hardscaping can also make the space more livable. After all, if you've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a piece of property, you should make the best of it and enjoy it all your space -- inside and out. There are several ways to use hardscape to improve the livability of an outdoor space, including enhancing privacy, creating boundaries, leveling the topography, providing shelter and reducing lawn maintenance.

For instance, fences offer privacy and safety. Fences can also provide solid property lines for defining the division of yards. The famous adage "good fences make good neighbors" is testament to the importance of clear boundaries in a community.


­Fences or walls can be used to divide up areas within a yard for different purposes. If it's important to have grassy areas for children to play in or for pets to use, you may need to section these areas off from hard surfaces and vegetable gardens. You wouldn't want a child to fall on a stone walkway or your beloved dog to relieve himself on your cherished tomatoes.

Perhaps most helpful, however, is how walls can improve the general topography of a yard. There's nothing like a steep, awkward slope to make a perfectly large yard uncomfortable and unusable. If the slope is steep enough, it may be worth putting in a retaining wall to correct it. Several different kinds of retaining walls exist, but they all serve the same purpose. Essentially, they hold back sections of soil so that you can separate your yard into levels of flatter surfaces. Retaining walls also prevent soil erosion.

Among the different kinds of retaining walls are gravity, piling, cantilevered, gabion, anchor system and concrete block. Each of these uses a different process for holding soil back, and the best kind for you might depend on your situation and preferences. To retain their durability, all retaining walls need some sort of drainage outlet. This is because water can accumulate in the soil and push against the wall. For reasons such as this, you should seek expert advice before attempting to build a wall yourself [source: Kennedy].

Another function of hardscaping is to provide shelter. Gazebos and overhangs are two examples of outdoor shelters that allow you to use your yard more. They can protect users from a light drizzle or shade them on hot, sunny days.

Lastly, if you're the kind of person who abhors mowing the lawn, hardscape can cut down on that chore significantly. Paving walkways or -- even better -- putting in patios will reduce the amount of grassy area in your lawn, giving you a very low-maintenance yard.

You should consider these practical functions first and foremost when developing your hardscaping plan so that you can design around the important features. We'll talk about some design guidelines next.


General Hardscaping Design Guidelines

Gazeboes make great focal points to center a wandering eye in a yard.

After considering all of the practical advantages of hardscaping options, you'll want to delve into your design choices. Everybody's got his or her own sense of style, and there's no sense arguing about matters of taste. Nevertheless, armed with some general guidelines, you'll be able to plan your hardscape with a cohesive, attractive design, all the while incorporating your own flair.

­Most landscapers advocate an appropriate mix between hardscape and softscape. This doesn't mean that your yard should be half hardscape and half softscape; rather, it should reflect your needs, circumstances and the size and layout of your yard. For instance, if you have a small, urban yard, putting in a patio probably means you'll have more hardscape than softscape. But if you have a vast yard with mostly softscape, you merely need to accent the plant life with walkways and a few scattered statues or a fountain.


Hardscaping expert David Stevens explains balance in respect to symmetry. He clarifies that a good design need not be perfectly symmetrical to be balanced. He suggests thinking about design balance on a weight scale. The things on each side don't have to be mirror images of each other to balance. A few medium-sized­ rocks, for instance, could balance out one large statue. Or a single pot could balance out a large fountain if the pot is moved closer to the center. This is what's called asymmetrical balance. It avoids the blandness of symmetry but keeps the look within a pleasing design.

Another element that most hardscapers advocate incorporating is a focal point. This is a central feature of the area that focuses and anchors an onlooker's gaze. Stevens suggests that water features, such as ponds or waterfalls, and large structures, like gazeboes, can serve as effective focal points in a yard [source: Stevens].

There's no one correct way to achieve all of these effects, but overall you should strive to blend the hardscaping structures with their surroundings. This can mean the house, the natural world or, if possible, both. Rather than jarring people with drastically different styles, designs should promote a fluid transition from inside the house to outside. This is why professional hardscapers often coordinate the hardscaping color scheme with not only the exterior color of the house, but also the interior colors of the house's walls and furniture.

If you have an attractive view of the landscape beyond your own yard, you might also like to achieve a fluid transition from your yard to the surrounding natural world. Some hardscapers suggest adapting the shapes and lines (such as those that form the borders of your garden beds) into curves that are conducive to this transition [source: Kennedy].

The materials you choose to achieve all these effects make a big difference. If you're planning a patio, you might be able to find a particular kind of stone whose color and texture work well with the materials that make up your home. Or you might use a special kind of timber that grows naturally in the surrounding landscape. We'll learn more about popular hardscaping materials next.



Hardscaping Materials

stone flooring
A couple puts down stone flooring.
Andrew Hetherington/Photonica/Getty Images

­If you're dead-set on redesigning your yard with hardscaping features, you have a lot of decisions to make. Whether you do it yourself or hire a professional, you'll need to choose what materials to use in your new wall or patio. Before you make any off-the-cuff decisions, it's good to know all your options. We'll go over some of the most popular hardscapi­ng materials as well as some common uses and advantages of each.

  • Concrete: This extremely common and popular material is a mix of cement, sand, aggregate and water. It's known for being relatively cheap and very durable. Before you recoil at the prospect of using concrete, note that it's extremely versatile. Aside from being able to take on any shape, you can have it stained and textured to match your preferences. It can be used in all aspects of hardscaping, including patio flooring, walkways, driveways and retaining walls.
  • Brick: These red blocks can give your patio or walls a classic look that never goes out of style. Brick tends to be a bit more expensive than the concrete alternative, with a cost more comparable to stone.
  • Stone: A few different kinds of stone are popular for hardscaping, such as flagstone, sandstone, slate, limestone and quartzite. Flagstone is a popular choice for patio flooring. For this, hardscapers typically lay the stones on a layer of concrete and connect them with grout joints. The width of these joints can vary depending on your preference.
  • Wood: As we've mentioned, the use of wood in hardscaping can create a fluid transition into a wooded landscape. It's most commonly used in fences and decks. Typically, decks are built with pressure-treated pine, and retaining walls are constructed with treated landscape timbers. Wood chips can also make a rustic walkway.
  • Pavers: While not a material per se like the ones above, this is a term that you'll come across in your hardscape planning. The term refers to different kinds brick-sized units used for patio flooring and walls. We're all familiar with classic brick pavers, which are red, made of clay and assembled together with mortar. Another kind of paver is made of concrete. It can be dyed any color and formed into any shape. Although sometimes dyed red and shaped like a rectangle to imitate brick pavers, concrete pavers can be molded into more interesting and curvier shapes. What's more, you don't have to install them with mortar -- most interlock to form a pattern.

When it comes to expressing your style, hardscaper expert David Stevens suggests using no more than two or three materials in one unified structure (like a patio). Cost is a significant factor when choosing materials. If you're considering hiring a professional hardscaper, ask him or her to include the cost of materials in the quote. Also ask the professional to recommend accents such as lighting and water fixtures.


Now that you're more familiar with your options, let's get into specifics about how to implement hardscaping features to make a beautiful outdoor space.


Design Principles in Garden Hardscaping

garden hardscaping
In this garden, although the vegetation is more interesting, the birdbath gives your eye an anchor on which to rest.
Greg Ryan/Sally Beyer/Red Cover/Getty Images

­Even if you don't have the budget to accommodate a large project such as a patio or a retaining wall, you have plenty of other hardscapin­g options. Hardscaping expert and author Keith Davitt writes about how a simple lawn ornament can enhance the softscape in your yard.

Davitt goes as far as to say a garden can't be complete without the structure hardscaping provides [source: Davitt]. Although the plants in your garden are beautiful in and of themselves, Davitt maintains that the human eye needs an anchor on which to rest from plant life. While plants are inherently complex and overwhelming for our eye to digest in one gaze, hardscaping features, such as a wall or a rock, are simple. Our eye can wander into the foliage and then continually return to hardscape for a rest. This contrast between complexity and simplicity provides the necessary balance in a well-designed garden.


Another important contrast between hardscape and softscape is that of permanence versus transience. We know that plants lose leaves seasonally, grow and die -- hardy evergreens put up a good fight against the cycle, but deciduous plants are especially vulnerable to it. On the other hand, a durable stone wall will far outlive the vegetation that grows around it. Onlookers get a sense of comforting permanence from hardscaping features like a stone wall. A related contrast has to do with how softscape is vulnerable and hardscape is solid.

Because hardscape stands out from foliage so well, you may need only one statue, birdbath or large rock to do the trick. Davitt stresses that hardscape should be arranged in a way that doesn't detract from the plant life. Remember that the hardscape is there to accent and complement the vegetation. It merely adds another dimension to the garden in the same way a singing voice can add a harmonious dimension to an instrument in a musical performance [source: Davitt].

Aside from this rather abstract reflection on why small hardscape features are so aesthetically pleasing, let's go over a few useful hints on how larger structures can help you enhance your garden. For instance, if you do have a natural slope in your yard and you'd rather not correct it with an unnatural-looking retaining wall, you can install a waterfall instead. A waterfall is a good solution for complementing your sloping landscape because it gives the appearance that it's naturally occurring [source: Seferian]. In addition, if you'd like to install bordering walls that separate your garden from a grassy area, a tall wall and door will give your yard an alluring secret garden look.

While garden hardscaping might be more about accentuating the natural world, patio hardscaping is usually about functionality. Next, we'll talk about patio design.


Planning Ahead in Patio Hardscaping

patio hardscaping
The potted plant and moss-covered boulder lend life and nature to this patio.
©iStockphoto/Brigitte Smith

­As you might expect, designing a patio is very different from designing a garden. After all, the purpose of a patio is more utilitarian: It's a large, durable area for rest, recreation and cooking. Thus, a patio gets a good deal of foot traffic. So when it comes to designing a patio for your yard, hardscape necessarily dominates softscape.

Just as you should examine your hardscaping necessities, such as fences and retaining walls, before you plan your overall yard design, so should you analyze the habits and needs your lifestyle demands before breaking ground to put in a patio. For instance, if you have a large family or entertain large groups of people often, you're going to need to designate a good deal of space for the patio. If you plan to put in a large barbecue, consider how much accompanying cou­ntertop you usually demand as well as the size of the eating table.


As we alluded to above, potted plants add softscape -- and therefore, life and warmth -- to what might otherwise be a sterile, cold patio. If you think you'll want to include some softscape in your patio design, designate space for plants or consider hanging them from a rafter. One option would be to set aside a corner of the patio for a garden plot. Another trick to enlivening a patio is to use brightly colored floor material. This is especially helpful if you choose to position your patio in the shade. Floors of bright stone or a white floor of concrete will reflect the maximum amount of sunlight off the surface [source: Stevens].

Speaking of sunlight, that's something you'll want to plan for as well. Take a day to inspect the orientation of the sun in relation to your yard. You may want to orient seating to face toward the sun during the morning or perhaps toward it in the evenings. It depends on your preferences and what time of day you're most likely to use the patio.

­Planning for the forces of nature also includes planning for the rain that will inevitably drench your patio. If you're not careful, you can expect to get a pond rather than a patio. If you're putting in the patio yo­urself, don't make the mistake of setting it perfectly level. Instead, you should incorporate a slope -- albeit a slight slope. In fact, if you live in a rainy climate, experts recommend installing a drainage system [source: HGTV]. To implement a drainage system, you'll have to dig trenches in the yard for underground pipes. These should open to natural water collection areas in the patio and yard, with drains covered by protective grates.

If you're ready to move from hard to soft, follow one of the several the links on the next page to gardening articles.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • Concrete Home Building Council. "At Home with Concrete." Concrete Home Building Council. [Dec. 4, 2008]
  • Davitt, Keith. "Hardscaping." Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. 2006. [Dec. 4, 2008]
  • Exterior Worlds. "Hardscape surfaces bring structure and interest to your garden landscape." Exterior Worlds. [Dec. 4, 2008]
  • HGTV. "Good Drainage Is the Foundation of a Great Landscape." Home & Garden Television. [Dec. 4, 2008]
  • Kennedy, Rose. "Dos and Don'ts for a Successful Hardscape." Home & Garden Television. [Dec. 4, 2008]
  • Seferian, Haig, Clair Whitcomb. "Hardscaping." McGraw-Hill Professional, 2004. [Dec. 4, 2008]
  • Stevens, David. "Hardscaping." Flower & Garden Magazine. Oct.-Nov., 1995. [Dec. 4, 2008];col1